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NASA's last shuttle blasts into history
Hundreds of thousands watch Atlantis blast off from Cape Canaveral on final mission of NASA's 30-year shuttle programme.
Last Modified: 08 Jul 2011 16:18

Space shuttle Atlantis has launched for the final time, beginning the last mission of NASA's 30-year shuttle programme.

Up to one million sightseers lined roads and beaches around the Kennedy Space Center in central Florida on Friday for a final glimpse of the iconic spacecraft. The shuttle was visible for 42 seconds before disappearing into the clouds.

It will be at least three years or more before astronauts are launched again from US soil.

Before the launch, Commander Christopher Ferguson saluted all those who contributed over the years to the shuttle programme.

"The shuttle is always going to be a reflection of what a great nation can do when it dares to be bold and commits to follow through," he said, addressing NASA launch director Mike Leinbach.

"We're not ending the journey today ... we're completing a chapter of a journey that will never end."

Atlantis' crew will deliver a year's worth of critical supplies to the International Space Station and return with as much trash as possible. The spaceship is scheduled to come home on July 20 after 12 days in orbit.

The space shuttle was conceived even as the moon landings were under way, and was deemed essential for building a permanent space station. NASA brashly promised 50 flights a year and a vehicle that would make trips into space routine and affordable.

But the program suffered two tragic accidents that killed 14 astronauts and destroyed two shuttles, Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003.

NASA never managed more than nine flights in a single year. And the total tab was $196 billion, or $1.45 billion a flight.

Yet there have been some indisputable payoffs: The International Space Station would not exist if it were not for the shuttles, and the Hubble Space Telescope, thanks to repeated tuneups by astronauts, would be a blurry eye in the sky instead of the world's finest cosmic photographer.

The station is essentially completed, and thus the shuttle's original purpose accomplished. NASA says it is sacrificing the shuttles because there is not enough money to keep the expensive fleet going if the space agency is to aim for asteroids and Mars.

Thousands of shuttle workers will be laid off within days of Atlantis' return from its 33rd flight, on top of the thousands who already have lost their jobs. And the three remaining shuttles will become museum pieces.

Source:
Agencies
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